Better Rehabilitation, Faster Recovery

Understanding Neck Strain & How to Treat It

What is a Neck Strain?

A neck strain involves damage to the soft tissue, usually muscles/tendons, around your neck. It can sometimes be a traumatic overstretching of your neck muscles, and it can sometimes be a chronic overuse injury, related to behaviors like poor posture. Your neck is surrounded by small muscles that run close to the vertabrae, and larger muscles that make up the visible muscles of the neck.

How does it occur?

Neck strains most often from an akward position during sleep or poor posture while working at a computer. They can also occur when the head and neck are forcibly moved, such as in a whiplash injury or in contact sports.

What are the symptoms?

You have pain in your neck. When the neck muscles go into spasm, you will feel hard and tight muscles in your neck that are very tender to the touch. You have pain when you move your head to either side or when you try to move your head up or down. If you have symptoms past the shoulder, immediately see a doctor.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your neck and see if your neck muscles are tender or tight. You may have pain over the bones in your neck. Your healthcare provider will help determine what the best plan of care is for you.

How is it treated?

  • Right after the injury you should place an ice pack on your neck for 20 to 30 minutes every 3 or 4 hours for 2 to 3 days or until the pain goes away.
  • Doing simple exercises regularly can help you relieve pain and prevent future strains. We've listed some easy ones for you to start with here.
  • Your healthcare provider may prescribe a variety of treatment options, including but not limited to anti-inflammatory medication, pain medication, or physical therapy
  • If you still have neck pain several days after the injury and after using ice, your healthcare provider may recommend using a moist-heat pad. You can make your own by soaking towels in hot water. Put the moist towel/pack on your neck for 20 to 30 minutes every 3 or 4 hours until the pain goes away. You may find that it helps to alternate putting heat and ice on your neck.

When can I return to my sport or activity? Return to your sport or activity will be determined by how soon your neck recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury occurred. See if you can do the following without any pain:
  • Turn your head fully to look over both shoulders.
  • Fully extend your head backward.
  • Flex your neck forward until your chin is close to touching your chest.
When you can return to your sport is best determined by your physician or physical therapist. Typically, returning to activity or sport is a gradual process, and does not occur all at once.
How can I reduce the risk of neck strain?

The risk of neck strain can be reduced by having strong neck muscles. If you have a job that requires you to be in one position all day (for example, working at a computer), it is very important to take breaks and relax your neck muscles.

There are quick exercises you can do at home or at work to stretch and strengthen your neck muscles. Try to do at least one or two a day as long as your healthcare provider says otherwise.

Neck Strain Rehabilitation Exercises

Time to Completion: 10 minutes. You can do these exercises right away.

Exercise 1: Active Neck Rotation - Repeat 10 times
  1. 1

    Sit in a chair and keep your neck, shoulders and trunk straight.

  2. 2

    Turn your head slowly to the right. Move it gently to the point of pain. Hold for 1 second.

  3. 3

    Move it back to the forward position and repeat on the left. Hold for 1 second.

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